Sophocles’s tragic play Electra is rife with deception and falsehoods. For example, when Orestes goes to the Delphic oracle to ask exactly how he should avenge the murder of his father Agamemnon, the oracle says: “By lone deceit and stealthy craft / Must blood be shed and victory won.” From the very beginning, Electra is set in motion with the expectation of deceit, and deception indeed gains momentum throughout the play. Orestes plans to gain entrance into his mother Clytemnestra’s palace to kill her and her husband, Aegisthus, in order to avenge his father’s death, and his plan rests entirely upon his ability to adequately disguise himself and deceive his family. Orestes is not the only character to don a disguise or employ various forms of deception, however, and nothing (and no one) is entirely as it seems in Electra. Through the play’s portrayal of deception and disguise, Sophocles effectively argues that deceit is so widespread, it is better not to trust at all.
In order to exact his revenge in the way the Delphic oracle ordered, Orestes concocts an elaborate plan in which Clytemnestra is presented with a bronze urn, supposedly containing Orestes’s ashes. By faking his death, Orestes hopes that Clytemnestra and Aegisthus will be tricked into letting their guard down, thus making it easier to kill them. Orestes also claims that the old slave’s age will provide the perfect disguise for him to deliver the false news. “Your age and long absence will make you hard to recognize,” Orestes says. “They won’t suspect those grey hairs.” He tells the old slave to “spin them a yarn” about being a stranger sent from Phocis to bring news of a “fatal accident.” Not only does Orestes bank on the old slave’s age as a disguise, he further orders him to blatantly lie and falsely claim that Orestes has died in a tragic chariot accident. Orestes deceives Clytemnestra not once, but twice. Everyone is convinced by the old slave’s disguise as a stranger from Phocis, including Electra, who was the one to hand off Orestes to the slave as an infant. Even after Orestes reveals himself to Electra, she still has no idea who the old slave is. “How could I fail to know you all that time, / Here but never giving yourself away?” she says once Orestes lets her in on the secret. Despite knowing the truth about Orestes’s death, she is still deceived by the old slave’s disguise. The fact that so many characters, from Electra herself to her scheming mother Clytemnestra, fall victim to deception suggests that everyone is vulnerable in a society so full of deceit.
It is not only Orestes and the old slave who employ deception to various ends, but other characters as well, which further implies that deceit and falsehoods are everywhere. While Clytemnestra claims she killed Agamemnon to avenge his killing of their daughter Iphigenia, Electra maintains that this isn’t entirely true. “I put it to you,” Electra says to her mother, “it wasn’t justice that drove / You to kill him. No, you were seduced by the evil man / Who is now your partner.” In other words, Electra believes Clytemnestra lied about her reasoning for killing Agamemnon and was really looking for a reason to get rid of her husband and marry her lover. Electra can’t believe anything her mother says, Sophocles suggests. Electra’s sister, Chrysothemis, is deceptive as well. Even though she secretly despises Clytemnestra and Aegisthus for Agamemnon’s murder, she peacefully lives with them and does not resist them in any way. If she “had the strength,” Chrysothemis says, she would tell them the truth. “But things are bad. It’s wiser to trim my sails,” she claims. Actions, Chrysothemis’s behavior implies, can be just as false as words, and therefore can’t be trusted either. Electra, too, is dishonest, and after Orestes kills Clytemnestra, she helps to lure Aegisthus into the palace by continuing the lie begun by the old slave. “Where are the messengers, then?” Aegisthus asks Electra of the stranger from Phocis. “Indoors with the mistress,” Electra tells her stepfather. “They’ve won their way to her heart.” Of course, Electra is just being facetious, and when Aegisthus approaches the palace, he finds Orestes bearing Clytemnestra’s dead body, not the cremated remains of Orestes. Aegisthus is deceived multiple times, by both Electra and Orestes, and Sophocles thus argues that would have been wiser for Aegisthus not to trust them at all.
Sophocles explores the consequences of such frequent deception and ultimately argues that falsehoods are not meaningless utterances but serious acts that can have grave results. “What harm does it do me / To say I’m dead?” Orestes asks his friend Pylades and the old slave prior to putting his deceptive plan into action. “None, if the outcome proves / My real salvation and wins me a glorious prize.” It’s true enough that Orestes is not harmed by his deceit during the play; makes it to the end unscathed, and he seems to kill his mother and stepfather with little trouble. Still, Orestes’s plan does not prove to be his “salvation.” According to Greek myth, Clytemnestra curses Orestes before he kills her, and he is relentlessly pursued by the Furies, the female deities of vengeance. Orestes wins a “glorious prize” when he regains control of his father’s house, but he is unable to enjoy it and is slowly driven mad by the Furies. Deceit indeed does great harm to Orestes, Sophocles thus implies, and so he suggests it would perhaps be better for everyone—even successful liars like Orestes—if society were less deceptive overall.
Deception, Falsehood, and Trust ThemeTracker
Deception, Falsehood, and Trust Quotes in Electra
Our crafty tale will bring them the glad tidings
That my body has been cremated and now consists
Of nothing but charred remains. What harm does it do me
To say I’m dead? None, if the outcome proves
My real salvation and wins me a glorious prize.
In my opinion, no word can be a bad omen
If it leads to gain. A false report of death
Is a trick I’ve often seen used by clever philosophers.
Here you are again, holding forth
At the palace gateway! Electra, what are you doing?
Haven’t you learned by now? Your anger’s pointless.
Don’t indulge it for nothing. I must admit
This situation distresses me too. If only
I had the strength, I’d show them how I feel.
But things are bad. It’s wiser to trim my sails,
Not pose as a threat without any power to harm.
I wish you’d do the same. I know full well
That right is on your side, but if I want
To be free, our lords and masters must be obeyed.
So long as I still had word that our brother Orestes
Was alive and well, I went on hoping that he
Would one day come to avenge his father’s murder.
But now that he’s gone for good, I’m looking to you.
You mustn’t flinch. Your sister needs your help
To kill Aegisthus—the man who perpetrated
Our father’s murder. No secrets between us now.
Where will inaction get you? What can you still
Look forward to? Only resentment in being deprived
Of your father’s heritage. Only the pain of growing
Old without the blessings of love or marriage.
Those joys are nothing more than a forlorn hope.
Aegisthus isn’t foolish enough to allow
A son of yours—or a son of mine—to grow
To manhood and so to ensure his own destruction.